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Thursday, 24 June 2004
Page: 25079

Senator COOK (5:55 PM) —If anyone is in any doubt about the political intent of the government with respect to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Codifying Contempt Offences) Bill 2003, they need only look at the Notice Paper of the Senate and the manner in which this bill has bounced from one day to the next day to the next day. Today it has been put back and put back and put back. This is a clear indication that the government regards this as a bill it wants for electoral purposes and not for industrial relations purposes. That is the motif of this legislation. It is a bill designed for another purpose, but not for the purpose for which it is now going to be amended.

That raises the question about whether the bill before us is indeed appropriate, or whether there should be a new bill. I say that because the Workplace Relations Amendment (Codifying Contempt Offences) Bill is about contempt offences. The amendments that are being proposed to it are amendments dealing with penalties, coercive powers and the disqualification from office of people who might be convicted and provided with a suspended sentence. None of those three things, in the explicit sense of what they describe, are about the purposes of this legislation. There is a history to this legislation, and it is worth putting my remarks about the amendments that have been foreshadowed and the purposes of this legislation in some context, so that I can draw the distinction between what we are effectively being asked to consider tonight and the fact that this is not what this bill was initially intended to do.

The government first introduced this legislation in June 2003 in the other place. It came before the Senate and was defeated on 3 March 2004. In the original bill the government sought to introduce a new offence in the act for contempt against the commission. That new contempt was a proposed power which would have come into effect by amending section 299 of the Workplace Relations Act. This sets out offences in relation to the Industrial Relations Commission, including the offence of contempt. The offence of contempt is currently contained in section 299(1)(e) and I will acquaint the chamber with the details of what the current situation is shortly. The bill also increased fines for these contempt and related offences, and those fines are a matter of some importance which I will come to shortly as well. They increased fines for some offences: for some imprisonment terms they were increased and for others they were removed.

When this bill came before the chamber, Labor opposed it on the basis that the existing section 299 provisions had never been used since they were last amended in 1993. We believed there was absolutely no demonstrated need to change those provisions. That was a substantial point that led to the defeat of the bill at that stage. The amendments—and I acknowledge the Democrat amendments, because I believe they were constructive when this bill was last before us—deleted the bulk of the bill, and we supported that. The amendments sought to retain and refine some of the provisions which create a new contempt offence in respect of giving false evidence to the commission. I will go to the argument about that, but for the moment I indicate that Labor opposed that provision. The Democrat amendments inserted new increases for penalties for breaches of awards and agreements. Labor opposed this as these penalties are totally irrelevant. The federal inspectors who enforce these provisions rarely prosecute for wages recovery, let alone seek penalties from a prosecution. There are fewer than three or four prosecutions a year. That, in itself, is a major issue of equity that needs to be addressed in some form. They were essentially the amendments that the Democrats sought.

The original Democrat amendments to the bill—the changes regarding the new offence about giving false evidence—were rejected by the government. There is now a proposal for whistleblower protection amendments, and a proposal from the government for a trebling of penalties. There are government amendments for offences under the Workplace Relations Act and the disqualification of union officials for offences where they are convicted and the sentence that follows their conviction is suspended. There is what I regard as the most serious of all of these amendments, and clearly the one that the government is most concerned to obtain passage for: amendments inserting coercive powers into the bill. That is by way of background regarding the history of this legislation and why we have arrived at this point.

When the original bill was before us in 2003, it was sent to the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Legislation Committee. The committee reported on 30 October 2003. The committee reported as a legislation committee—predictably, I guess, along party lines. The government majority favoured the bill, the opposition put in a report and the Democrats put in a report. The minority conclusion of the committee—it was the conclusion of a minority of the committee but it reflected a majority of votes in the chamber, I submit—is best summarised by what the Australian Democrats said in paragraph 1.21 of their report. They said:

... given that the Government provided evidence that no action under 299(1)(e) has ever occurred, the Democrats must question how much real need there is for this amendment.

That is indeed the key question that hangs over this provision: if it has not been used, why fiddle with it? Given all of that, the worthwhile question to ask is: what has changed since this bill was defeated? What has changed is that the building industry legislation has been the subject of a Senate inquiry and it appears that there is an understanding, at least in part, between the government and the Democrats on dealing with the amendments that are foreshadowed this evening, which related to penalties regarding, as I said, coercive powers and convictions. The codifying contempt bill is not about those things; these things are a grab bag of other issues. I think it is reasonable to say, at the beginning of this debate, that if they are to be put in that way, they ought to be put in a new bill.

I will say a bit more about these amendments when they come forward. The first thing to say about the government’s increase in penalties, which we find offensive, is that the amendment proposes to triple the penalties. There is precious little explanation as to why that is necessary. The fact that penalties are to be tripled is not something one does lightly. We have a number of questions on the formula in this regard. I have mentioned the coercive powers. I think they represent a fundamental attack on the human rights of workers in this industry. We will be opposing those amendments as well.

We will support the amendments relating to the disqualification from office of a person who is convicted and provided with a suspended sentence but we will do so after we have made a number of points about questions of justice in relation to this matter. There may be an effort to turn this debate into a highly political debate. I say to the chamber, before anyone moves down that road, if they do, that we are talking here about the field of industrial relations. Industrial relations is essentially about human relations transposed to the Australian workplace, and what is a fair share or a fair reward for work and what is a fair return for investment. These are not matters that can be settled by some arithmetical formula; these are matters that are settled by subjective judgment.

What an investor regards as a fair return on their investment is a decision an investor makes. What a company regards as a fair profit is a concern that a company arrives at. What a worker regards as a fair return for their labour is something that they arrive at. Industrial relations is often about trying to reconcile all of those competing points of view. It is also about human dignity in the workplace—the ability of people to work and get respect as workers and get appreciation for the work they do.

Tonight we are talking about amendments which load up penalties, load up coercive powers and increase more pains in the act. None of those things speak to how you manage human relations in the workplace. What they speak to is a belief that you can coerce people who hold honest opinions about what is right and appropriate by applying penalties to them. If they disobey, you apply more penalties and increase the level of fines. That is not a recipe for good industrial relations; that is a recipe for very bad industrial relations.

We will strongly argue that the basic rules to resolve these things are not rules of our choosing as an opposition; they are rules that have been imposed in industrial relations practice in Australia, and some of those rules frankly create a situation in which there will be continuing industrial unrest. The level of industrial unrest in this country has fallen, and that is something to be noted. In the building industry the level of industrial unrest is related to the nature of that industry. It is not related directly to any sort of fearmongering that the government refers to about the role of unions; it is related to the structure and nature of that industry in a large part. If there is to be a solution to finding a better practice for industrial relations in that industry then the structure of that industry has to be considered because the way it is structured creates the behavioural problem. Labor are of the view that this approach will only exacerbate difficulties and create problems where they indeed need not exist.

The direction of the government amendments as foreshadowed is highly ideological and, in the current climate, is meant to exacerbate opinion and create a basis for a union-bashing election campaign. That is not in the interests of industrial relations either. There are better solutions and those better solutions should be sought rather than go down this course. We may have a very long debate tonight, tomorrow and the next day—however long it takes—but the springboard of this debate is: you cannot suppress human dignity with penalties, pains and new sanctions. (Time expired)